www.thespec.com – Graham-Rockingham
5 October 2023 – Mortality and morality are two dominant themes in O Sun O Moon, Bruce Cockburn’s latest album, Graham Rockingham writes.
The final track on Bruce Cockburn’s latest album “O Sun O Moon” is an old-timey singalong called “When You Arrive.” Backed by saxophone, clarinet and six backing vocalists, Cockburn plucks out a ragtime rhythm on guitar while delivering the chorus in a gravelly somnambulance, a slight uptick at the end of each line.
“The dead shall sing, to the living and the semi-alive
“Bells will ring, when you arrive”
It’s a fun song, despite the morbid lyrics. After all, there’s no beating death. It comes to everyone, so you might as well take it in stride. Laugh at the inevitable.
Let’s hope Cockburn sings it Oct. 11 when he performs a solo show at Hamilton’s FirstOntario Concert Hall. Imagine a full house singing along, celebrating our mortality, maybe even hoping there’s something more than … well … just death.
At 78, Cockburn has reason to have such things on his mind. Like the rest of us, he’s aging. Cockburn is on the phone from his home in San Francisco, where he has lives with his wife M.J. and their 11-year-old daughter, Iona.
So Bruce, do you encourage a singalong when you perform “When You Arrive?”
Watch: When You Arrive
“Oh yeah, as much as possible and it’s so much fun when it works,” he said. “When everybody gets singing in it, it’s such a great feeling — that the inevitability of it can be sung about in a cheerful way. It’s fun.”
Mortality and morality are two dominant themes in “O Sun O Moon.” Why not focus on the two big M-words? Once you reach a certain age, they’re even bigger than those other M-words, marriage and mortgage. We all have to face what awaits us at the end, and whether we’ve lived a life worthy of its gifts.
“When You Arrive” dovetails nicely with its preceding track, the more sombre “O Sun by Day O Moon By Night,” gospel-tinged hymn chronicling the narrator’s walk to the gates of heaven.
Cockburn is a Christian and the morality of his faith has woven its way through his work since the early ’70s.
So one has to ask: Bruce, do you believe in heaven?
“Pearly gates and streets paved in gold? No, not that heaven,” Cockburn responded. “But I think there is … well … I have no idea what it is. All of the attempts people have made to depict it in words or imagery, nobody can really get a handle on it. I like to think that there is something within us that persists, that there is a consciousness attached to that element of perception. There may not be, but I don’t think there’s anything to lose by hoping there is.
“I think we go somewhere. Maybe all I’m really talking about is the dissipation of our energy into the cosmos.”
It’s nice to know even Bruce Cockburn — revered as a virtuoso guitarist and one of Canada’s greatest songwriters — doesn’t have the answer to everything. He is sure of one thing, however: the need to conduct ourselves on earth with love, understanding and forgiveness, even toward ones who don’t necessarily deserve it.
Here’s a verse from the track “Orders.”
“The sweet, the vile, the tall, the small
“The one who rises to the call
“The list is long as I recall
“Our orders said to love them all”
Similar sentiments can be found throughout the album on songs like “Us All” and “When the Spirit Walks into the Room.”
“I was glad to get the ideas for songs like ‘Us All’ or ‘Orders’ to address something that I think is a huge problem, it’s not a new problem, but the manifestation of it as I encounter it now in the United States, is not something I grew up with.
“This divisiveness, I think, has been encouraged deliberately by various elements and it’s very dangerous and unpleasant, so the songs were intended to address that.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Bruce Cockburn album without some politics thrown into the mixture and the lead single “To Keep the World We Know,” co-written and sung with Susan Aglukark, portrays a world literally on fire. Despite the song’s lyrics of impending environmental doom, the song carries an upbeat, bouncy melody.
“That was sort of intentional,” Cockburn explained. “Everybody’s aware of this stuff at this point. It’s not like we have to convince anyone. It’s more about the focus. It’s not an angry rant or a mournful lament, it’s let’s get on this, let’s do something. So a hopeful element was appropriate.”
As Cockburn edges toward an eighth decade on the planet — “I hear 80 is the new 60,” he joked — he has no idea whether he has another album in him. He knows, however, he can still perform. And gain some joy from it.
When asked if he felt nervous, up on stage all alone with just his guitars and a microphone to back him, Cockburn chuckles.
“It’s easier than when I was young,” he said. “Then it was terrifying. Now it’s just a little bit frightening and it gets less frightening as the tour goes on. But I like what I do and I’m glad to be able to keep on doing it. I’m grateful for that.”
“Time takes its toll
“But in my soul
“I’m on a roll”
From “On a Roll,” opening track on Cockburn’s latest album “O Sun O Moon.”